Why teacher aides are crucial to classrooms: a principal and an aide write

At the end of last year, it was reported that many schools are having to cut teacher aide hours due to tightened budgets. Below, two accounts from Pukerua Bay School, north of Wellington: one from a principal on the importance of teacher aides in the classroom, another from a teacher aide on the impact of these budget squeezes on her life. 

Tara Taylor-Jorgensen, principal, Pukerua Bay School, Porirua

In an ideal world our school would have a teacher aide in every classroom – all day.

I can’t speak for all NZ schools but our school has so many diverse needs that a TA would be run off their feet in any of our classrooms. Further, in such an ideal world, we would also be paying them at least the living wage of $20.20 per hour.

Our TAs (and support staff) bring so much depth to our school – they see the classroom and the children from another perspective and, as a result, our teachers and students both learn from them.

I think that some of the best teachers in our country have been teacher aides previous to teaching. I therefore see the role as not only aiding teachers and students but also growing phenomenal professionals. Teacher aides are an investment not just for schools, but for our society.

Further, personalised, flexible learning is big in our school and our TAs assist with this by bringing their vast prior knowledge to learning situations as well as being an additional set of hands and eyes. I can’t even imagine our school without them.

Our staff and Board of Trustees agree, which is why, for 2018, we decided that our human resources are far more important than material ones – so we made our humans our budget priority.

On making such a decision we put our top school value of kindness into action. Although AI (artificial intelligence) is coming ahead in leaps and bounds it is not yet in a place where it can foster relationships and model kindness to our young people. The state of mental health in our young people is not getting any better and we all need extra support to address this.

Likewise a fancy new shiny resource does not replace the human quality of being able to react to our student’s physical and emotional needs. We need our humans.

Support staff wages should not be coming out of bulk funding. Entitlement algorithms need to be overhauled and funded accordingly. Learning support funding needs to stop being allocated on a term-by-term basis too.

We are pleased to be able to hang on to our precious TAs (albeit by the skin of our teeth and at reduced hours) and we feel lucky that they haven’t just walked away… yet.

Kylie Haines, teacher aide, Pukerua Bay School, Porirua

I don’t much like the idea of having to compete against toilet paper, but that’s the life of a teacher aide. Unfortunately, just before Christmas, the toilet paper has won again and next year I’ve lost seven hours of work each week.

It’s a story being repeated up and down the country this time of year, as school principals and boards try to stretch their operating grants to cover every aspect of keeping their school up and running. Teacher aides are losing hours left, right and centre – an NZEI survey has found that 44% of principals are cutting TA hours to meet budget in 2018.

Principals don’t like doing it – my principal is gutted about having to cut the hours for myself and the two other TAs at our primary school. But you can’t avoid paying the power bill or just say “oops, sorry” to the ministry about your budget blowout.

TAs are one of the few unfixed costs and therefore a “dispensable” part of the school budget. I know my principal and school board worked so hard to save our jobs and cut every other expense they could, but at the end of the day, we’re still losing a lot of hours.

But cutting our hours comes at a cost. It means the children with extra learning needs aren’t getting the one-on-one support they need. Their teachers will try desperately to ensure they aren’t missing out, but they still have the rest of the class to teach. This will be exhausting and stressful for all involved.

And then there is the impact on my own children and household budget. This year, I lost seven hours a week, taking me down to 18 hours. Next year I’m down to 11 hours a week.

To make ends meet this year, I got a second job after school, on minimum wage, assisting at the after-school care program (paying secondary tax of course). Next year, the after-school job will be my main source of income and I’m worried about how we’ll make ends meet.

My partner pays the rent on our home, but he’s not the father of my kids and I have to cover all other expenses – without any support from WINZ because I have a partner.

I’ve managed to put the bills like electricity and internet into credit to get us through the summer while I receive no income, but it’s going to be a tight Christmas and there won’t be any holidays away for us.

Long-term, I can see this probably isn’t going to work. I’m going to have to get a job with reliable ongoing hours and a higher pay rate. After 4.5 years of experience as a teacher aide I don’t even earn the living wage of $20.20 per hour.

The trouble is, I love working with the children, watching them grow, develop and succeed. I have been lucky to be based in the junior new entrant classroom this past year. The laughter that takes place alongside the learning is contagious, and I’ve had an amazing time working with these children. Watching milestones take place for them; learning to read and write as well as crawling around the floor looking for a lost first tooth! It’s almost like reliving the precious firsts I had with my own children when they were younger.

And while getting a job with more financial security may be the “solution” for people like me, it’s not the solution for the students and teachers who depend on our skills and contribution.

That’s why I’m hoping that 2018 is going to be different. I hope that the new government will see the need to significantly increase school operations grants, so we don’t keep losing hours. I’m also hopeful that one day our wages will be centrally funded like teachers’ salaries are. And I’m closely following the teacher aide pay equity claim negotiations between my union, NZEI Te Riu Roa, and the Ministry of Education.

It’s high time we were treated like valued educators who make a vital contribution in schools, not glorified “parent helps” being given a bit of pocket money for helping out.


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